A football-loving country with a population of 200 million ranked 199 in the world, Asia’s sleeping giant is not China, India or Indonesia but Pakistan. “If things are done correctly then we could be a superpower,” the Pakistan international Navid Rahman told the Guardian. “It is not because of a lack of talent or interest but the way things are run; the problem is not Pakistan but the people in control.”
That sounds about right as last Wednesday Fifa banned Pakistan for the second time in four years after what it called a “hostile takeover” of the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF).
Haroon Malik – head of Fifa’s normalisation committee (NC) since January and tasked with, among other things, holding elections to find a new president of the PFF – felt it was very hostile. He told the Guardian that on 27 March he felt as if he was chased out of the PFF headquarters in Lahore by a group led by its former president Ashfaq Hussain.
“I was there just working,” said Malik, who believes that the invaders had inside help. “Around 3 pm, about 10 or 11 people came into my office and there were more downstairs. [Hussain] led the attack and started demanding that we hand over PFF accounts. When the decibel levels started to increase, I got scared and decided it was time to leave.”
Leaving was easier said than done, he claims. “As we were leaving, they physically restrained some of my staff. When I got to the door at the lower level, it was padlocked from the inside and I was already mildly panicked and didn’t know what to do. It was a glass door so I threw the doorstop through it and kicked the rest of the glass out and we left.”
As dramatic as it sounds, Hussain, who was elected PFF president in 2018 in a ballot not recognised by Fifa because it was ordered by Pakistan’s supreme court (though he says that Pakistan’s laws prevail over Fifa’s), denies any intimidation. “This is a baseless statement,” he said, adding that he went with about 14 members of the PFF’s congress and executive committee. “We had a meeting with Haroon. He said: ‘Give me five minutes to decide.’ All of us were waiting for almost 45 minutes so I went to ask him again and he just walked out of the office with his bag that was already packed. We were on the second floor and on his way out he picked up a brick and smashed one of the windows.”
It would be easy to get into the symbolism of officials in Pakistan arguing about smashed glass but there are bigger issues at play. Malik, whose January appointment Fifa said would “give fresh impetus to the normalisation process”, said that time was needed because there had not been a real PFF election for a decade, which meant compiling a complete voting register for all stakeholders was a lengthy task. A public announcement outlining the electoral roadmap had been due for early April.
Hussein wonders whether there was any such intention. “If a country of over 200 million people can organise an election in three months, why has there been no election in football? For 18 months we waited and did not even go near the building but they did nothing, but there is a limit.”
There is no roadmap now but there is an international ban because of what Fifa called the “illegitimate occupation of the PFF building”. Hussain is unfazed. “Football will never stop in Pakistan. I kept on writing to Fifa but they never responded. Enough is enough. If this is football, God help us.”
Malik describes as “mind boggling” what appears to be such insouciance about suspension given the impact he feels it would have on sponsorship and facilities in football. The men’s national team may barely play (there have been seven games in the past six years because of early elimination from World Cup qualification campaigns and the goings-on at the federation) but the ban will be “devastating”, according to Rahman. “There are many peoples’ livelihoods at stake,” he said. “People have given up so much to get where they are. They are playing with people’s lives and futures. We just want to represent our country.”
Female players, who already face obstacles to play the game in Pakistan, have also been vocal. Teams withdrew immediately from the national women’s championship, organised by the NC. “There were already so many societal limitations and finally we had this platform like the national women’s championship but it all finished on Saturday night,” said Cinderalla Salamat of Sialkot City Women’s FC, who added that withdrawing was a tough decision. “I cried but we decided that we will return to Sialkot. It was just wrong, and we couldn’t be a part of any of that.”
The men’s national team captain, Kaleemullah Khan, has not been alone in calling for the prime minister, Imran Khan, who knows a thing or two about sport in Pakistan, to bang a few heads together. The former cricket star appears to have remained quiet so far, though the director general of the country’s public sports board said the government was surprised and shocked by the ban.
Nobody else seemed to be, but whatever happens Malik believes the damage has been done. “They’ve moved out a lot of records, computers and staff from the building already. You can’t interrupt a game and then carry on as if nothing has happened but we don’t want to lose another generation of players and officials.”
Hussein has said he is ready for talks with Fifa and insists that the NC can return, on certain conditions. “We are still open to Fifa and we say: ‘Come and hold the elections.’ We will provide space in the building for that but they can’t control everything. We are the elected body and Pakistan football will still continue.”